The history of Hatfield House begins in about 1485, when John Morton, Bishop of Ely, built Hatfield Palace. It was a big quadrangle of russet brick; one side of it, containing the Banqueting Hall, still stands to the west of the present House. When Henry VIII dispersed the possessions of the Church, he took it over and used it chiefly as a residence for his children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. Hatfield is most associated with Elizabeth who spent much of her childhood happily at Hatfield in company with her young brother Edward and sharing his education. After Henry VIII’s death, Elizabeth’s life became troubled and during the reign of her sister Mary, Elizabeth found herself virtually a prisoner. She lived as splendidly as she could; we hear of a gorgeous masque and play being given for her entertainment in the Hall, and of a message sent by her sister the Queen that such frivolous activities must be discontinued!
In 1558 Mary died. Seated under an oak tree in the park, Elizabeth was reading when the news of her accession was brought to her. (Hatfield, the Park, an oak tree marks the place where the young Princess Elizabeth first heard of her accession to the throne).
Her first act was to send for William Cecil, afterwards Lord Burghley (1520-1598). Elizabeth appointed him her Principal Secretary; he remained her chief minister for the rest of his life. Her first Council was held in the Great Hall but after this she spent little time at Hatfield.
Hatfield House was completed in 1611. It was built by Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury and son of Lord Burghley, the chief minister of Elizabeth I. The deer park surrounding the house and the older building of the Old Palace had been owned by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, who had used it as a home for his children, Edward, Elizabeth and Mary.
The Cecils’ former home was at Theobalds, also in Hertfordshire. In 1607, Elizabeth’s heir, James I offered to exchange Theobalds for the Old Palace and manor of Hatfield. A draft Parliamentary Act of exchange survives in the Cecil Papers at Hatfield, dated May 1607. Salisbury began building work immediately. The main architect of the house was Robert Lemynge but Simon Basil, the Surveyor of the King’s Works and Inigo Jones also contributed to the design.
Salisbury had been appointed Lord Treasurer in April 1607 as well as Chief Secretary, but, he became ill and died, aged only 48, in April 1612. Although he was buried in Hatfield, he didn’t live to enjoy the house that was to become the home of his descendants for the next 400 years
Hatfield House is now the home of the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury.
Visitors can enjoy extensive walks in the 1000 acres of park with woodland trails and a wonderful spring bluebell display.
There is a play area for younger visitors with plenty of grassy space for running around. Picnic tables are provided under the trees to while away a pleasant afternoon.